WESTFIELD – City councilors expressed their disappointment during the Dec. 3 City Council meeting that the water department did not come in to answer questions about surprisingly high water bills that have occurred since new water meters were installed in the city.
Ward 5 Councilor John J. Beltrandi III said the request for a representative of the Water Department to come in had been made by himself and Councilors Michael Burns, William Onyski and Richard K. Sullivan Jr. in response to “a multitude of complaints.”
“Today we got a letter stating they weren’t willing to come in until they were invited through the proper channels. After this meeting, I will invite them through the Water Commission and mayor. My email for Ward 5 is blowing up. We need to have this discussion, I was really hoping to get that started tonight,” Beltrandi said.
Beltrandi said there are so many residents, especially in Ward 5 that he knows of who have been getting bills in the thousands of dollars. He said in some ways it doesn’t make sense, such as for an elderly person living on a fixed income. “It’s our responsibility as councilors to seek answers to these things,” he said.
At-large Councilor Dave Flaherty argued that the City Council has the right to investigate financial transactions in the city. “We shouldn’t have to jump through hoops like this,” he said,
However, Mayor Donald F. Humason Jr. who was listening to the council meeting, said on Friday that he had only been told at the same time as the councilors that Interim Superintendent Francis Cain wasn’t able to attend the meeting, and that is why Cain sent a letter instead, answering some of the questions that had been asked. “They should have read the letter,” Humason said. He also said that normally the council does go through the mayor’s office to speak to department heads.
Humason said the mayor’s office has also been getting calls about the increases in the water bills. “We’ve been receiving calls in the mayor’s office just like the councilors have, from folks that are concerned not only about increases, but considerable increases. There are pretty compelling cases that they don’t believe bills should have changed so considerably. The Water Department needs to explain to laymen what the situation is. We’ve been contacted by residents and businesses that have been pretty severely impacted,” Humason said.
During the meeting, At-large Councilor Dan Allie said the issue is time sensitive because the bills are coming due, and he thanked Beltrandi for putting the motion together. “There’s one resident who received a bill of $2,259, when their normal bill is $169. That represents 525,000 gallons that would almost fill up an olympic size pool,” Allie said.
Allie said with the new meters, which are reading lower levels of water usage, the city is supposed to be able to send out an alert to notify residents if leaks are detected. “I can tell you this resident and others did not receive an alert. They’ve been inspected and no leaks (were found). This volume of water just doesn’t make sense. These bills are coming due, these are from the summer, some of these people have been dealing with this for six to eight weeks. Some of these situations are dire,” Allie said.
Burns, who formerly served as a water commissioner, said the Water Resource Department has an abatement process in place, in which residents have to fill out the paperwork and then go before the Water Commission. “They usually approve onetime abatements,” Burns said, adding that he thinks that someone in the department has to come in to answer questions about that process.
“I know there’s a lot of people listening out there listening right now, and they’re concerned. They’re not going to shut your water off. They’ll work through a collector. Their policy is not to shut water off,” Burns added.
Sullivan said that the Water Commission had a lengthy discussion at their last meeting on the abatement process, which he said has not been kept up to date, and they began addressing one of the issues which is that you have to pay the bill before getting an abatement. He said they were contemplating as long as residents are in good standing prior to seeking an abatement, that will give residents standing.
Sullivan thanked the commission for that consideration, however he said it didn’t answer the problem of why a significant number of people saw significantly higher bills, and he said he didn’t believe it was just the water meters. “I find it hard to believe that that so many people, whole entire neighborhoods, that that’s a one size fits all answer to every issue. I think it’s more than that,” Sullivan said.
Humason said he liked the discussion about appealing the bills. “Right now you have to pay before you can appeal. I liked the fact that the Water Commission is looking at other options to allow people to appeal their bills,” he said.
In regards to another question from the council about whether an extension to the bills may be made, Humason said the state gave cities and towns certain options to help people during COVID, such as extending the due date on real estate taxes. He said some of those options have been continued, and that there may be more tools in the budget that was just passed and is sitting on the Governor’s desk, but he doesn’t know what those are yet.
“The city is sensitive to residents and businesses who are in the same boat. People are underemployed or not working right now because of COVID, but they are in the position that they still have private bills and ones to the city to pay. We’re trying to be as helpful as we can be under the law,” Humason said.
At the end of the discussion in council, Beltrandi made a motion to ask the mayor’s office and Water Commission to invite the Water Department personally, not by letter, to come in and address the issues by the next meeting. The motion passed unanimously.